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California's Plans for Slowing Climate Change Through Nature-Based Solutions

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As part of SF Climate Week, KQED’s Danielle Venton sat down with the California Secretary of Natural Resources, Wade Crowfoot, for Climate One at the Commonwealth Club.

They discussed wildfires, indigenous leadership, natural land and the State’s plans for slowing climate change.

“If I had one point to make,” said Crowfoot, “it’s the importance of nature in our efforts to combat climate change. We talk so much about energy, transportation, buildings, transitioning to 100% clean energy and reducing pollution. And that’s all critically important. But we can’t forget the natural carbon cycle.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Venton: Wildfires have been a huge source of carbon dioxide emissions in the state. In some years the second largest source of emissions after transportation. They threaten to wipe out some of the real progress the state has made in tamping down our greenhouse gas emissions. What are we going to do about that?

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Crowfoot: Wildfire is a natural part of our ecology in California and across the American West. The big challenge is this unnatural, catastrophic level of wildfire that we’re experiencing in California. Before California was a state, when Native American communities were stewarding our lands, they had established a lot of low-level cultural fire on the landscape to manage this. California statehood comes on, and that practice is actually prohibited. There’s a misunderstanding of a lot of our natural resource professionals over almost a century that excluded fire from our landscapes. And then, when we add on climate change, that means hotter temperatures and less healthy forests. We have this epidemic of catastrophic wildfire risk.

Fundamentally, it’s about restoring health to our landscapes, whether it’s forests in northern California, the shrub chaparral in Southern California. It involves a couple of things. One is our firefighting agency, CalFire, is the most sophisticated in the world. We’re doing more to respond to fires and keep them small. And we’re doing more to take action up front, proactively. That’s where wildfire resilience comes in. Our governor and legislature have given $3 billion of funding over the last three years alone toward these projects, whether they’re fuel breaks around communities that allow wildfire firefighters to take a stand or whether they’re reducing their density of vegetation or reintroducing that prescribed fire. We have a target to hit a million acres of these projects with the federal government by 2025.

I want to ask you more about that in a bit, but this idea of forests being in largely an unhealthy state, can we change forests from being a carbon source to a carbon sink?

We need to in California, and we need to across the world. Our landscapes, our plants, our soils, our oceans are part of our carbon cycle, and we know they are a critical solution to the climate change crisis. Ultimately, we need to shift our lands from becoming the source of emissions that they are and ultimately moving towards being the sink, removing that carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Do you think we can get there once we work through the debt of unburned fire that we’ve seen in this state over the past 100 years?

We can; it’s going to take time. The science is evolving in understanding carbon stocks in different landscapes, whether it’s a forest or a desert or a wetland. The expert in our state government called the California Air Resources Board, which sort of maintains the roadmap to achieve our climate goals, identifies that right now, our lands are a major source of emissions. For the first time in 2022, our road map was updated to achieve carbon neutrality. And our landscapes are variable, in other words, our landscapes are part of the roadmap to achieve carbon neutrality. So now we have a target at our agency that we’re working to achieve, to limit the amount of further carbon losses from our lands. And ultimately our goal is to help them be a sink.

Let’s talk about some news. California has set a goal to use more than half of its lands to help sequester carbon and fight climate change by 2045. Can you tell us more about that? And how does it fit in with the 30 by 30 goal?

If I had one point to make here in this discussion, it’s the importance of nature in our efforts to combat climate change. We talk so much about energy, transportation, buildings, transitioning to 100% clean energy and reducing pollution. And that’s all critically important. But we can’t forget the natural carbon cycle. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which are this collection of global scientists that advise the United Nations, identified that it’s nature-based solutions that are going to help us achieve a lot of the near-term progress we need to stabilize our climate.

In California, we’ve been focused on how do we set numeric goals to achieve what we want to on our lands as it relates to carbon. Gov. Newsom released over 80 specific targets, landscape by landscape. Think forests and farms, deserts and wetlands, coastal savanna, cities, with specific actions and a numeric target of the amount of acreage or the scale of these actions. Everything from the forest management that we talked about to restoring wetlands, to greening our cities, to introducing regenerative agricultural practices. These are all actions that are going to improve the health and resilience of our landscapes. And for the first time, they’re going to actually enroll our lands in California in this world-leading fight against climate change.

And how is the state going to make sure that that actually happens, that there’s policy to back up that goal?

I was with the governor this morning with a group of leaders. And one point he made is that California sets among the most ambitious climate action goals in the world. And to date, we’ve met those targets. Think back to 2007. California was one of the first places in the world to set a state law to reduce carbon pollution; that was called Assembly Bill 32 or AB 32, and it required a certain pollution reduction by 2020. Well, California got there three years early. When I worked for Gov. Jerry Brown, we set a zero-emission vehicle target of 1.5 million vehicles by 2025, and we reached it last year, three years early.

So, we’re focused on setting ambitious goals and then meeting them. Now, as it relates to these nature-based solutions, a lot of work is already in place. Over $1 billion has already been spent in the last few years alone conserving our lands. I think over $100 million for a healthy soils program to incentivize farmers to put organic content into their soils. Same with urban greening, tens of millions of dollars to green schoolyards and city streets and vulnerable communities to extreme heat. There’s a lot of work that’s happening. But, like a lot of our goals in California and around the world, we have to accelerate our actions.

Let’s talk about 30 by 30. That was spurred by an executive order in 2020 establishing a goal of conserving 30% of California’s land by 2030. We’re only six years away. How are we progressing?

I want to share the origins of 30 by 30. This is actually a global movement. And the legendary conservationist E.O. Wilson wrote a book called Half Earth. His contention is we have to conserve half the world in its natural form to maintain the life on Earth that we know. California was maybe the first one to actually adopt this as a 30 by 30 target, maybe on the way to 50%. Gov. Newsom did that in late 2020, four months later President Biden adopted 30 by 30 as the federal goal. Then, in late 2022, the UN organized the negotiations on biological diversity or biodiversity. And believe it or not, virtually every country in the world signed up to protect a third of the Earth. We were at about 23% of our lands protected or conserved before announcing the target. And over the last couple of years, we’ve added well over a thousand square miles to that. We’ll be announcing our annual update this summer with more progress.

Do we have a percentage for where we’re at right now?

We are moving in at 25%. And I don’t want to scoop our annual report this summer and tell you.

I think many people are very excited about the idea of setting aside more lands. But how do you protect livelihoods while also protecting lands? I’m thinking of the agricultural industry.

It’s a fair question. Historically, environmental protection has been set up against economic progress or prosperity. It’s been this false choice of economy or environment. And from our perspective, protecting our ecosystems doesn’t just make sense for the fish and wildlife. When we protect the ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada mountains, that’s a green infrastructure. Those headwaters are the beginning of our water system. We need to continue to grow in California. We need to build housing. We need to build that clean energy infrastructure. We need to modernize so much. We can do that while conserving land.

It needs to be planned and effectively. For example, we have a lot of focus on building housing where jobs and infrastructure already exist. Reducing sprawl that threatens some of those sensitive habitats. Lastly, I’ll say that one of the powerful aspects of 30 by 30 is that it is a voluntary, collaborative approach. So, it’s not forcibly taking, for example, farmland out of production. But within our pathways to 30 by 30 are other enhanced conservation measures. Things like putting compost on your soils or planting hedgerows for biodiversity. We actually have really strong partnerships with the agricultural community, the cattlemen, for example, because we know that productive working lands can actually deliver environmental benefits. And so we’re working to incentivize practices to do just that.

What is the state doing to bring indigenous people and native people to the table and empower them?

That is probably among the most meaningful of the work that I get to do. Having this whole journey of reconciliation with our California tribes. You know, the first governor of California, in his inaugural address, put a financial bounty on the heads of native women and children, paying Californians to kill women and children. That is state-sanctioned genocide. And Gov. Newsom acknowledged that in the first few months of his first term, inviting tribal leaders to Sacramento and issuing a formal apology.

That was a powerful moment, probably the most powerful day of my career. But what we all recognized and the tribal leaders told us is, if that’s all you do, ultimately, it’s counterproductive. We have to lean in and follow through. So, in our agency, it looks like ancestral land return. It looks like binding co-management agreements for our resources. It looks like actually integrating traditional ecological knowledge into our scientific climate assessment. And we’re doing it. Our governor, our legislature, two years ago, allocated $100 million for ancestral land return. Some of California’s tribes that have been dispossessed of land are actually getting land back. So, I’ll always say I’m proud of our progress with a lot more work ahead in this area.

A lot of the people who I talk to, who really care about prescribed fire, say that prescribed fires aren’t going to get us to where we need to go in terms of the number of acres that need to be treated. And that we really need to start looking at allowing fires, when it’s safe and when it’s been prepared for, allowing fires that are doing ecological benefit on the land to continue to burn. What do you think about that? How is the state thinking about that?

Managed fire, the idea if you have a fire in a remote area, rather than focusing your energy and putting it out, letting it burn, has been controversial in rural California because if you’re a small community and you’re worried about that fire, you’re very concerned that the firefighters are more interested in letting the fire do its thing than protecting your community. But I think we’ve made a lot of progress. We know that low-level intensity fire is healthy for landscapes, and that’s why we do prescribed fire. We know that some of the wildfires that are generated in California, many naturally occurring through lightning strikes, ultimately burn themselves out. I think that there’s a role for differentiating, low-level fire, from big catastrophic wildfire. We’ve only had one metric of fire, and that’s the acres burned. And we need different metrics.

If you drive up Route 50 to South Lake Tahoe and you see the burn scar of the Caldor fire. In some places, the fire burned fairly low severity. And there you see a lot of the understory cleared out. But the mature trees are still green and growing. And then, in other areas, you’ll see the whole place just looks like nuclear winter. So, we think that there is a role to get a lot more sophisticated about differentiating these fires and then ultimately getting to a point where you have low-level fire, whether that’s naturally occurring or prescribed on an annual basis.

My last question is tailored to my interests, but I think a lot of people care about it. Camping. It’s a way that many Californians enjoy this beautiful state, but it is so hard to get a reservation now. How are you thinking about this? And can we have more campgrounds?

We have a demand supply imbalance in outdoor recreation. Part of why I came to California from the state of Michigan in my early 20s, was to be outside, to explore this incredible place. We definitely understand that to get a state park reservation; I used to set my alarm at 7 a.m. six months before and try to get that reservation. So yes, we’re working to build more, more campsites. We’re also working to improve the way that you can access those campsites. So, reduce or enable some reservations to actually stay open for longer so you don’t have to be like a professional camper, getting on the web at just the right moment.


We’re also implementing some legislation that enables more reservations that get canceled to be reused. Sometimes, you can show up in a state park, and you’re looking around, and like a third of the sites are actually unused because someone made the reservation and didn’t use it. We’re also engaging in some really interesting public-private partnerships with entities like Hipcamp, sort of the Airbnb for camping. Lastly, I’ll say we’re really focused on expanding access, particularly in those communities that don’t have outdoor access. Some communities don’t have enough parks or their parks aren’t safe. Others don’t feel welcome in our state and national parks. So, we’re working to change that through this initiative called Outdoors for All. So, you’ll see more investment in new parks, open space and, yes, campgrounds.

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